Respect for Complexity Makes Democracy Possible

We’ve all had conversations where someone has fallen into the temptation to argue that simplicity is the most necessary quality for anything that can stand the test of time. But the natural world builds resilience into systems of all kinds by fostering unrelenting complexity; the key feature that makes complexity work is the intelligence with which diverse and competing interests fit together to achieve the wider aim of standing up against external threats, decay and decline.

In the landscape of public policy, this means rethinking our attitude about the problematic complexity inherent in dealing independently with a wide variety of diverse and competing stakeholder interests. It is, of course, easier for those who have to decide what adjustments to make, regarding any policy or practice, to exclude most stakeholders and only answer the needs of those whose interests fit simply and comfortably with their own. But then, that is not democracy.

Continue reading “Respect for Complexity Makes Democracy Possible”

Red-Blooded Conservatives & Blue-Ocean Progressives

There is a fallacy at the heart of the political discourse of late 20th and early 21st century America: that conservatives and liberals are diametrically opposed, unable to work together, and committed at their very core to one another’s destruction. Certainly, when ideology comes into the debate, there are hotly contested arguments to be had. But honest conservatives and honest liberals have a lot more in common than we normally admit.

At the heart of what motivates people to call themselves conservative, there is an impulse to gravitate toward clarity, toward what is known to be good in people and in society, toward a set of principles by which society can find its way through the turbulent waters of an unknowable future. At the heart of what motivates people to call themselves liberal or progressive is a not-too-dissimilar impulse to gravitate toward reason, toward what is known to be good in people and in society, toward a set of principles by which we can work together to calm the seas of a turbulent and unknowable future.

Continue reading “Red-Blooded Conservatives & Blue-Ocean Progressives”

United, to Earn a Democratic Future


During the American revolutionary period, Benjamin Franklin published this cartoon —we’ve updated the coloring and the text— with the caption “Join, or Die!” His meaning was that the new states would need to join together into a unified overarching political structure, or they would be easily overrun by the British empire. In Lincoln’s words, “a house divided against itself, cannot stand.”

Continue reading “United, to Earn a Democratic Future”

Fear of Difference is Opposition to Democracy

The United States of America is a nation of immigrants. It is a nation that has wrestled with vicious undercurrents of racism and xenophobia, and has emerged ever more democratic, generally trending toward a more perfect union representing the foundational ideals that were, in the 18th century, so far out of reach, but so necessary as core aspirations. And over time, it is a nation that has become richer, stronger and more democratic, by getting closer to those foundational ideals.

In advocating for the most effective way to form a new democratic nation in Argentina, Juan Bautista Alberdi wrote that Argentina should follow the example of the United States and encourage major waves of immigration, because the resulting society, with a large population, with diverse backgrounds and a commitment to building something new, will make for a more sustainable and democratic republic.

Continue reading “Fear of Difference is Opposition to Democracy”

Rise of the Revolutionary Moderate

What took place in Egypt between Jan. 25 and Feb. 11, 2011, was a revolution, but it was non-violent and it joined together disparate ideological factions, rich and poor, old and young, Christian and Muslim. It gave the lie to the notion that moderation in politics cannot be a revolutionary force for transformative change.

In the United States, we have put far too much stock in the idea that identity politics boils down, in this aftermath of centuries of discrimination, to liberal versus conservative, with two diametrically opposed views on every policy. Conservative activists are “radicals” somehow intent on ruining the middle class, while progressive activists are “revolutionaries” somehow intent on waging a Marxist class war.

Continue reading “Rise of the Revolutionary Moderate”

To Honor the Consent of the Governed


Today, the pro-democracy protest movement that began to put down roots in Egypt’s public life on January 25, 2011, at Midan Tahrir (or Liberation Square) in central Cairo, not only continued its expansion across the capital and throughout the nation, but achieved one of its major political aims: the resignation of Hosni Mubarak, who had ruled as an authoritarian strongman for thirty years, without ever lifting the emergency laws that allowed him to crush dissent and marginalize political opposition.

February 11, 2011, must be remembered as a day when human decency and justice won out over the arbitrary acts of autocrats and torturers. Today must be remembered as a day when the idea that the only legitimate government is one that is formed with the consent of the governed was again affirmed by a diverse and impassioned political center demanding basic respect for fundamental values and the ethical treatment of all people.

Continue reading “To Honor the Consent of the Governed”